This is it - the matchup that Eagles fans have thirsted for since the schedule was released back in the spring. It's Dallas Week and the division lead hangs in the balance on Thanksgiving as the Eagles travel down to Jerry-world for the biggest game of the Eagles' season so far.
The Cowboys' offense is no secret, everyone knows what it is about and what it brings to the table. It starts with the run game, and the stretch run in particular. This play was analyzed with a bit more depth in Week 3, but as a quick refresher, the goal is to get the defensive front on the move and create a crease for the back to run through. This is accomplished by stretching the front side (the side of the offensive line that the back is running toward) and cutting the back side (the side of the line that the back is running away from).
Now, the "cut" can take a number of different forms, and it changes by team, play call and defensive front alignment, but it could be an actual cut block at the defender's knees, a reach block (where a lineman tries to just get in the way of a defender so he can't pursue the play), a scoop block (where the the lineman actually cuts across the defender's face and repositions himself so he is facing away from the play and creating a seal) or any number of other techniques that help create that crease for the back.
On this play against the Seahawks, see the great hole that running back DeMarco Murray gets up front, as he presses the hole and scores a game-clinching touchdown to put the Cowboys ahead of the reigning Super Bowl champs. How did this run come to fruition? Let's take a closer look.
First, look at the movement up front from center Travis Frederick. A lot of people ridiculed the Cowboys for taking Frederick, a center, in the first round a year ago. No one is killing them for that pick now, as he has quickly developed into one of the better interior linemen in the league. On this play, he gets a ton of movement against nose tackle Brandon Mebane, one of the better nose guards in the league, to help open a hole for Murray.
Next, look at the scoop from left tackle Tyron Smith, an incredibly athletic tackle with great functional strength who possesses the ability to do a number of things for them in their run game. Smith crosses the face of the 3-technique and sits and anchors down, helping to seal off the lane for Murray to run through.
On this stretch play, look at the job Smith does again, this time getting to the second level and blocking the linebacker to help spring Murray free against Tennessee.
On that same play, look at right guard Zack Martin. The rookie first-round pick out of Notre Dame has fit like a glove on the Dallas offensive line and performs well in a phone booth (tight space) as well as on the move. Here you can see him perfectly cut the backside defender, as he erases the nose tackle from the play.
Look at the job right tackle Doug Free does reaching the 3-technique. All he needs to do is get in the way and prevent him from making a play from the backside. He accomplishes that by cutting him off to allow running back Joseph Randle earn his longest gain of the season.
Martin does a great job on this run as well, getting up to the second level and taking linebacker K.J. Wright for a ride, helping spring Randle for the huge gain. Look at the job Frederick does taking the nose tackle out of the play. This is why this offensive line has had so much success so far in 2014. The scheme is a great fit for their skill sets and the backs do a nice job of being both patient and decisive, finding the hole when it opens and hitting it downhill.
While the Cowboys are a bit of an open book in some respects offensively, they do a really good job of messing with opposing defenses and keeping them on their toes. Their ability to run the ball and throw it with consistent success lets them be close to 50/50 in their run-pass ratio. But their ability to play with a number of different personnel groupings and move the ball is also key.
Typically a one-back offense, they will bring in fullback Tyler Clutts and go two-back for some power runs. They also will rotate in tight ends James Hanna (a former receiver at Oklahoma who has come a long way as a blocker) and Gavin Escobar (a former second-round pick out of San Diego State), to play with two or even three tight ends. The Cowboys have shown they will not only run out of these heavy formations, but throw out of them as well, making it a tough proposition when they come out of the huddle in these sets.
On this play against Seattle, the Cowboys are in 22 personnel (two running backs and two tight ends). This is a lead play to the right where they pull Martin as a lead blocker and it leads to a long gain on the ground.
On this first quarter play on Sunday night against the Giants, they come out in the same grouping in 22 personnel. This time, the Cowboys run play-action. Look at the reaction from the New York linebackers! Hanna leaks out for a long pass play down the field.
On this play against Seattle, the Cowboys this time come out in 13 personnel (one back, three tight ends) and run play-action down the field. Escobar catches the ball down the seam for a touchdown. Play-action out of these heavy sets will be something to watch out for on Thanksgiving.
But the Cowboys don't just line up in heavy sets in these groupings, as you can see in this shot against the Cardinals. Here, out of 13 personnel again, Dallas is in an empty set with three tight ends lined out wide to the right, and Dez Bryant and Murray lined to the left. They will spread defenses out to create matchups favorable to Tony Romo, as he hits Witten on a quick slant route for a first down.
One theme I found watching the Cowboys this week is that they're moving Bryant into the slot a bit more than they have in the past. I haven't crunched the numbers (59 routes out of the slot, 13 catches and a touchdown, per Pro Football Focus), but Dallas has found a lot of ways to give Bryant two-way goes at the line of scrimmage, decrease the amount of double teams he faces and get him the ball quicker to allow him create yards after the catch by lining him up inside. On this play, he lines up inside the numbers and he wins on a corner route down the field.
Against Seattle, the Seahawks' Richard Sherman shadows Bryant inside, but even he couldn't hold up Bryant at the line of scrimmage. Bryant beats him inside and catches a beautiful ball down the field.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Cowboys may not have as many household names as they have had in the past, mainly due to offseason attrition and injuries. While they're not top of the barrell talent-wise, they do a good job playing within the scheme and they aren't on the field as often thanks to Dallas' ball control offense. While they do play a good amount of man coverage, when they do go zone you will see a good amount of Tampa-2 coverage. While it's a form of Cover 2, it's essentially a three-high coverage thanks to the middle linebacker dropping down the middle of the field. You have two flat players in the corners, two hook players in the outside backers and/or nickel corner and the two high safeties.
Here, middle linebacker Rolando McClain, a former first-round pick who has found his way in Dallas, comes up with the interception in Tampa-2 dropping down the seam.
This coverage does have it's holes, though, particularly in the "turkey hole" above the cornerback and beneath the safety. Vertical routes down the sideline and corner routes into that void can be especially lethal against any Cover-2 scheme, including the Tampa-2. The Cardinals hit this fade route down the field a few weeks ago.
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on 6abc Saturdays at 7:30 PM. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast each week online and on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices and opponents.